Archive for Ripples in the Cosmos

An Integral Appendix

Posted in Biographical, Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by telescoper

After the conference dinner at the Ripples in the Cosmos meeting in Durham I attended recently, a group of us adjourned to the Castle bar for a drink or several. I ended up chatting to one of the locals, Richard Bower, mainly on the subject of beards. I suppose you could call it a chinwag. Only later on did  we get onto the subject of a paper we had both worked on a while ago. It was with some alarm that I later realized that the paper concerned was actually published twenty years ago. Sigh. Where did all that time go?

Anyway, Richard and I both remembered having a great time working on that paper which turned out to be a nice one, although it didn’t exactly set the world on fire in terms of citations. This paper was written before the standard “concordance” (LCDM) cosmology was firmly established and theorists were groping around for ways of reconciling observations of the CMB from the COBE satellite with large-scale structure in the galaxy distribution as well as the properties of individual galaxies. The (then) standard model (CDM with no Lambda) struggled to satisfy the observational constraints, so in typical theorists fashion we tried to think of a way to rescue it. The idea we came up with was “cooperative galaxy formation”, as explained in the abstract:

We consider a model in which galaxy formation occurs at high peaks of the mass density field, as in the standard picture for biased galaxy formation, but is further enhanced by the presence of nearby galaxies. This modification is accomplished by assuming the threshold for galaxy formation to be modulated by large-scale density fluctuations rather than to be spatially invariant. We show that even a weak modulation can produce significant large-scale clustering. In a universe dominated by cold dark matter, a 2 percent – 3 percent modulation on a scale exceeding 10/h Mpc produces enough additional clustering to fit the angular correlation function of the APM galaxy survey. We discuss several astrophysical mechanisms for which there are observational indications that cooperative effects could occur on the scale required.

I have to say that Richard did most of the actual work on this paper, though all four authors did spend a lot of time discussing whether the idea was viable in principle and, if so, how we should implement it mathematically. In the end, my contribution was pretty much limited to the Appendix, which you can click to make it larger if you’re interested.

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As is often the case in work of this kind, everything boiled down to evaluating numerically a rather nasty integral. Coincidentally, I’d come across a similar problem in a totally different context a few years previously when I was working on my thesis and therefore just happened to know the neat trick described in the paper.

Two things struck me looking back on this after being reminded of it over that beer. One is that a typical modern laptop is powerful enough to evaluate the original integral without undue difficulty, so if this paper had been written nowadays we wouldn’t have bothered trying anything clever; my Appendix would probably not have been written. The other thing is that I sometimes hear colleagues bemoaning physics students’ lack of mathematical “problem-solving” ability, claiming that if students haven’t seen the problem before they don’t know what to do. The problem with that complaint is that it ignores the fact that many problems are the same as things you’ve solved before, if only you look at them in the right way. Problem solving is never going to be entirely about “pattern-matching” – some imagination and/or initiative is going to required sometimes- but you’d be surprised how many apparently intractable problems can be teased into a form to which standard methods can be applied. Don’t take this advice too far, though. There’s an old saying that goes “To a man who’s only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. But the first rule for solving “unseen” problems has to be to check whether you might in fact already have seen them…

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No more ripples?

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 27, 2013 by telescoper

Well, that’s the Ripples in the Cosmos meeting in Durham over and done with, and I’m back in Newcastle for a few days before moving on to Edinburgh next week. I’m not sure I’ll be able to blog much over the next few days because my internet connectivity will be a bit limited.

Anyway, the meeting was very exciting, as you can tell from the picture showing me (with the beard) and Brian Schmidt (with the Nobel Prize):

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Yesterday it was my job to round off the meeting with some concluding remarks leading into a panel discussion. I have to admit that although the programme for the conference was clearly designed in order to generate provoke discussion, I was a little disappointed that so few people said anything controversial. I’ve long held that there are too many cosmologists willing to believe too much, and this was further evidence that the scepticism that is a necessary part of a healthy science has been replaced by widespread conformity, especially among the young; when I was a lad the students and postdocs were a lot more vocal at meetings than they are now. Perhaps this is characteristic of a change in culture of cosmology? To get a job nowadays it’s virtually essential to climb onto one of the big bandwagon projects, and to keep your place you have to toe the party line, refrain from rocking the boat, not speak out of turn, and avoid making ripples (That’s enough metaphors. Ed).

Anyway, I think there are still a great many things in modern cosmology we don’t understand at all, and I think a few more of the older generation should show the way by questioning things in public. In fact only got asked to do the concluding remarks because Jim Peebles was unable to come to the meeting. Jim’s an immensely distinguished physicist who has probably done more than any other living person to develop the standard cosmology, but he’s also never been afraid to play devil’s advocate. We need more like him, willing to articulate the doubts that too many of us feel the need to suppress.

It’s amazing how much progress we have made in cosmology over the last few decades, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to get complacent. Cosmology is about the biggest questions in science. That alone makes it an exciting subject to work in. It’s an adventure. And the last thing you want on an adventure is for the journey to be too comfortable.

The Mysterious Mr Ripples

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 24, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am in the fine city of Durham, in the North Midlands, for a meeting entitled Ripples in the Cosmos. I travelled by plane from Gatwick to Newcastle on Sunday afternoon, and got there eventually – after a two-hour delay caused by the aircraft we were meant to fly on having a technical problem and needing to be replaced by another. Anyway, I spent Sunday with my folks. Thinking it was only going to be a half-hour drive to Durham, we left early on Monday morning so I’d be in time to chair the first session.

Unfortunately, major roadworks on A1 intervened and we got stuck in traffic near the Metro Centre in Gateshead. Fortunately, various people at the conference caught my Twitter updates and a deputy was arranged. I got there about 30 minutes late and I took over after the coffee break.

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After the day’s conference I wandered up to Durham Caste (left), where I had a room booked for the week. However, when I got there they had no record of my reservation. The porter was very helpful and let me connect to my email to check, and I retrieved the confirmation of my booking. In exasperation, I looked through the papers he had relating to room bookings, and found one in the name of “Mr Ripples”. Not even “Professor Ripples”, mark you.

 

The mysterious Mr Ripples not having appeared to claim his room I surmised that the similarity of his name to the title of the conference might indicate that perhaps some administrative error might have been made. The porter agreed, changed the name from Mr Ripples to Professor Coles and gave me a key.

Anyway, Durham Castle is a rather splendid place to stay.  Breakfast is to be had in grand surroundings complete with walls decorated with suits of armour, swords and other historical weapons. This environment, together with the continuing warm weather, as well of course as the excellent conference talks, has made this very enjoyable week so far.  Apart from the nagging doubt that Mr Ripples could suddenly turn up and demand his room, the only problem is the ringing of bells all through the night.

The conference dinner is this evening, and it’s in the Great Hall of Durham Castle so I won’t have far to stagger home to bed…